Young social activists and student and nonprofit leaders are helping to accelerate the energy transition from the ground up

By Laurie Stone, Senior Writer/Editor at Rocky Mountain Institute.

In the face of growing climate change and what is seen by many as insufficient concrete action, young people all over the world are stepping up to take a stand and make a difference. Hundreds of thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students from over 100 countries recently walked out of their classrooms to participate in school strikes against climate change inaction. College students are asking for more renewable energy and sustainability courses and programs. Millennial entrepreneurs are starting businesses to tackle climate change in innovative ways. And more young people are joining Rocky Mountain Institute to help create the world they want. All of these young folks have one thing in common — they realize their future depends on it.

The student strikers are following the lead of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, who delivered a speech to policymakers at COP24 in Poland. “You say you love your children above all else,” Greta said, “and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” Every Friday for the past few months she has been on strike from school as an act of protest.

Competitive skier Bodhi Yang, shown here with his sustainable bamboo ski poles, made a movie about climate change and why it’s important to protect our winters.

Other students are taking measures such as urging their school administrators to install solar electric systems on their buildings and raising money for environmental organizations. Students from the Severna Park Middle School in Maryland actually raised money for RMI through their Model United Nations (UN) club. Each year the club tackles a global issue, and in 2018 it was the development of environmentally responsible sources of energy. The children, ages 11 to 13, are tasked with promoting the issue and raising funds for an organization through a charity challenge. They decided to make pencil windmills using recycled National Geographic covers, and sell them at lunch time and at the school’s Earth Day festival.

From left to right: Juliana, teacher Christine Torelli, and Camille selling homemade windmills at the Severna Park Middle School Earth Day celebration to raise money for RMI.

The Severna Park kids won the award for raising the most money of all the schools in the county. According to the head of the Model UN club, teacher Christine Torelli, “These are intrinsically motivated kids, they have a sense of the bigger picture. And through the process of raising money, they got to see that their actions do matter.” Camille, 12, a seventh grader in the club, believes, “We should take care of and be responsible for our environment, or the world and the amazing animals that live in it will disappear. We should work with organizations like Rocky Mountain Institute and advocate for a clean environment.” “Kids should care about the environment since we are the future,” added Juliana, 14, an eighth grader in the club. “We need to teach future generations to advocate and properly care for the health of the earth.”

Another inspiring young donor to RMI was Eric Konheim. Eric was an avid river runner, recycler, and nonconformist who lived life true to his environmental beliefs. He lived frugally, saving money so he could spend time on the rivers he loved. When he tragically died in a kayaking accident at age 28 in 1991, his family discovered tens of thousands of dollars hidden in his pillow. Those funds, he had written in a will, were to be bequeathed to RMI. After Eric’s death, his father, Bud Konheim (see p. 12), created the Eric Konheim Memorial Fund as a memorial to his son. The fund, which carries on today, supports the RMI work that Eric was so passionate about by funding interns.

Children and youth around the world are making a difference in other inspiring ways. Bodhi Yang, the 12-year-old son of RMI’s Development Operation Manager Ginny Yang, is a champion skier from Aspen, Colorado, who is passionate about climate change. He recently produced a short film for his sixth-grade project focused on his and his friends’ love of skiing and fear of climate change, and how important it is to take action. “Since I really love our planet and especially snow and skiing, I wanted to make a short ski film with kids talking about how it’s our future that will change and there shouldn’t be adults deciding to just throw it in the trash. We have to try to fight it,” says Bodhi. The film won the overall and audience award at a local short film festival.

While Bodhi might still be some years off from becoming a member of RMI’s growing staff, many other young people are joining our ranks. Every summer a group of interns from colleges and graduate schools across the country come to RMI to work on projects as varied as vehicle electrification, net-zero energy homes, and African minigrids. We have had hundreds of interns over the past three decades.

One of our more recent interns, Grant Glazer, 24, joined us in 2018 from Stanford where he was pursuing an environmental engineering master’s degree. Grant worked with the electricity team helping to develop a model to create portfolios of clean energy that can replace proposed natural gas plants. Grant’s environmental advocacy started young. “As a kid my parents taught me to always leave a place cleaner than I found it, whether a room or a picnic area,” he says. “Pretty early on in my life I realized that was not what was happening, and that I and others like me who consume a lot of energy have large carbon footprints, almost certainly leaving the world dirtier and worse than we found it.”

“It’s our future that will change and there shouldn’t be adults deciding to just throw it in the trash. We have to try to fight it.”

Grant applied for the Schneider fellowship at Stanford, which is named in honor of Stephen H. Schneider, one of the first climate scientists to stress the importance of scientists telling the world about climate change and producing solutions. Becoming a Schneider fellow meant that Grant could intern at a leading US sustainable energy organization. He says, “I chose to spend my time at RMI because it’s a small organization that tackles big problems and takes a detailed-oriented approach to target the exact sticking points to reduce carbon emissions and unlock a clean energy future.” Grant is now an RMI associate working on both decreasing carbon emissions from natural gas plants and helping communities become more resilient to the threat of wildfires. “The opportunity I have to work professionally in a job that tries to leave the world cleaner than it is now is an incredible honor,” he says.

Former RMI intern Zihe Meng is now a senior associate working on RMI’s SEED team promoting microgrids in Africa.

Zihe Meng, 28, was another RMI intern, joining us in the summer of 2014 while she was pursuing her master’s degree in engineering management at Duke University. She had always been interested in cars, and did two internships in the automotive industry while getting her undergraduate degree in China. She jumped at the chance to work on transportation issues in China at RMI. During her internship with RMI, Zihe worked on our Reinventing Fire: China initiative, helping China adopt more stringent fuels standards for vehicles. “I really admire RMI’s holistic approach,” Zihe says, describing how she learned a lot about other energy issues during her internship. “Even though I was on the transportation team, I worked with people from other teams looking at energy efficiency and renewables from multiple angles.” She joined the RMI staff in 2015, and now works on the Sustainable Energy for Economic Development team, helping to promote minigrids in Africa. Zihe says she loves working on the implementation and pilot project side of things. “We’re really changing people’s lives and improving their living conditions. We’re also helping countries start things in the right way by adopting renewables from the beginning, instead of having to retire coal plants,” she says. “It’s important for my generation to be involved,” she adds, “because the earlier we fully realize and understand the consequences of climate change and start taking action, the more effective we can be.”

“We may be avocado-toast eating, big-box-retail destroying, college-indebted millennials, but we also are the most connected and globally conscious generation in history.”

Those who believe the stereotypes of millennials as being lazy and self-centered have obviously not met RMI’s interns and other young staffers, who are making a big impact on the world. In fact, two RMI staff members have been listed in the Energy category of the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 list, which chronicles what Forbes calls “the brashest entrepreneurs across the United States and Canada.” Just this year, Ryan Laemel, 27, a manager in RMI’s India Program, made the list. Ryan leads RMI’s Urban Mobility Lab and is focused on partnering with the Indian city of Pune to implement solutions for traffic management, public transit, and electric mobility. (See Ryan’s story about his travels with Amory.) Before joining RMI, Ryan was at Yale, where he created the first university-based internal carbon pricing program. He believes that “as the inheritors of our society and natural world, young people have a responsibility to play a central role in energy and climate action.” Ryan also believes that young people have something unique to bring to the challenge. “Having grown up in an era of rapid advancements in policy, technology, and business models, young people can bring a fresh perspective to today’s energy and climate action,” he says.

And in 2016, Mark Silberg, 27, RMI’s first e⁻Lab Network Manager and current associate made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Besides leading external engagement for e-Lab, Mark was the lead associate on long-term energy system planning and regulatory support for key decision makers in Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. He is currently working on RMI initiatives related to building electrification and energy resilience and is also the founder of Spark Clean Energy, a nonprofit that received Department of Energy funding to support university cleantech start-ups. According to Mark, “Climate change is a rare breed of complex problem — it requires technological, economic, political, and policy approaches, alongside an awareness of societal, business, and moral matters. We may be avocado-toast eating, big-box-retail destroying, college-indebted millennials, but we also are the most connected and globally conscious generation in history, and there’s no better problem to solve than one that requires changing the entire global energy system and world economy.”

Avocado-toast eating millennial Mark Silberg facilitating an e-Lab Accelerator meeting and making a difference in the world.

RMI is also helping other young people learn about the issues and make change. Since 2011, RMI has been helping run an annual National Environmental Summit for high school students from around the United States. Held at Catawba College in North Carolina each summer, the summit helps students explore how they can use their interests and talents to address today’s environmental challenges and make a difference in the world. According to RMI Manager Robert McIntosh, 34, who presented in the summit for three years, the students are super engaged. “Climate change is going to be the critical issue of the next 50 years, of their productive lifetime. They could rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, or they could prevent it from going down,” says Robert. “Fortunately, they want to be engaged, they want to know how we addressed these problems in past generations. They want to know what we’re doing out there practically in the world and how they can make a career out of helping to fix this problem.”

We have also been working with Stanford University holding a yearly weeklong class on integrative design and extreme energy efficiency. The 30 to 40 students come to RMI’s Innovation Center in Basalt, Colorado, over their spring break to learn and practice how to increase efficiency though whole-systems design within the buildings, mobility, industrial, and electricity sectors. The students are a mix of graduate and undergraduate students, and they’re not all studying engineering, they come from varying disciplines. Avery McEvoy, 24, took the class in 2018 as a master’s student in atmosphere/energy engineering. She returned in 2019 as a teaching assistant for the course. “When I first got to Stanford, I hadn’t heard of RMI because I wasn’t in the energy space yet,” says Avery. “But my first energy course cited a lot of RMI’s and Amory’s work. So when the opportunity came up to learn a lot about energy in a very intensive way, I thought it would be a great way to spend spring break.”

While not the classic spring break, learning experiences like these are becoming more popular. In fact, the Stanford class was so popular this year the university had to turn students away. “There’s been an increased rhetoric and understanding that climate change is real and happening, so I think more people of my generation want to do something about it,” says Avery. “Classes like these are important because knowing the kind of future we’re going into, everyone needs to have some sort of energy literacy.”

“Knowing the kind of future we’re going into, everyone needs to have some sort of energy literacy.”

Vivan Malkani, 21, another Stanford student, grew up in Mumbai and saw a lot of social inequity as a child. He became a political science major because he saw politics as the best way to make change. He is now pursuing a graduate degree in management science and engineering, and joined the RMI course because he believes integrated system design has a lot to offer in approaches to problem solving that go beyond engineering. “I started out working on social issues from a policy side. But I recognized the incredible impact climate change was going to have, and how we were careening toward disaster,” Vivan says. “So I started working on energy issues, because I realized people from across several disciplines have to work together on this. Integrated design makes you question how our system got here and what we need to change in order to move forward.”

From school strikes to innovative start-ups, young people are leading the way on climate change. Greta Thunberg may have started a movement, but she is not alone. Grade-schoolers, teenagers, and millennials around the world are challenging the current decision makers to take action, and when that action isn’t sufficient, they are educating themselves and taking bold steps on their own. They realize that the future is in their hands, and they’re not going to just rearrange the deck chairs, they’re going to keep the ship from going down.

Solutions Journal Spring 2019

Vol. 12 №1 Published by Rocky Mountain Institute